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What They Don’t Know….

picture of Oz Venn diagram

One of the interesting facets of having completed 36 years of teaching is the observable differences between today's students and those that I taught at the beginning of my career. There's no difference, of course, in IQ — my current students are every bit as bright as those I taught "back in the last millennium," as I love to say when referring to my younger years. One thing I do notice, though, is that what today's students know and don't know is vastly different from what my former students knew and didn't know.

I try to stay current on some aspects of today's pop culture so that I know what my students and others are talking about. I'm not always successful in that endeavor, though — there's just so much to keep up with and so little time! It's quite a balancing act trying to keep up on (dreary) current events and to dabble in several of the many avenues of social networking as well as trying to do as much reading as possible on French Literature from the Middle Ages in preparation for my course lectures. Talk about having one's feet planted in two different worlds!

During one of our many interesting lunch room discussions last school year, a colleague mentioned something he had read online. One professor in a community college contends that he has found only one thing with which his students, who vary greatly in age and background, all seem to be familiar. Here's that portion of the article:

One of the things I try to do on the first night of English 102 is relate the literary techniques we will study to novels that the students have already read. I try to find books familiar to everyone. This has so far proven impossible. My students don't read much, as a rule, and though I think of them monolithically, they don't really share a culture. To Kill a Mockingbird? Nope. (And I thought everyone had read that!) Animal Farm? No. If they have read it, they don't remember it. The Outsiders? The Chocolate War? No and no. Charlotte's Web? You'd think so, but no. So then I expand the exercise to general works of narrative art, meaning movies, but that doesn't work much better. Oddly, there are no movies that they all have seen—well, except for one. They've all seen The Wizard of Oz.

The preceding quotation is from an article in The Atlantic online called "In the Basement of the Ivory Tower" by Professor X (really)

I'm not sure that we could justify applying his findings to all college students in America, but I've made enough allusions to things in the Wizard of Oz in my classes to know that most of my students always seem to catch them. When we learn the French -re verbs, I enjoy presenting one that's not in our book — fondre. I demonstrate its meaning by writhing, sinking down towards the floor, and saying "Je fonds" in a high-pitched voice. Most of my students catch on right away that I'm saying "I'm melting" and imitating the Wicked Witch from the Wizard of Oz. I guess that that would lend some credence to Professor X's statement.

Through the years I've had to drop one reference after another to pop culture as I saw that that year's crop of students no longer recognized the references. I was thrilled this summer to see an ad for a Big Mac using the old "two all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun" jingle that will allow me to resurrect a joke I used to love to tell but that had become hopelessly lost on the young.

When students come to us, they know only what they have been exposed to by their families, their schools and churches, their peers, and their own reading. As Professor X stated, many of them don't read much, that is if you don't count text messages and websites.

At this time of year, I always think of the list put out by Beloit College that reminds teachers of the "mindset" of that year's incoming freshman class. If you want to feel old ... even some of you who may only be in your late 20s, check out the list on their website (link is below). Here are a few of my favorite items from this year's list:


Most students entering college for the first time this fall were born in 1991. (That fact alone is alarming!)

They have never used a card catalog to find a book.

Salsa has always outsold ketchup.

There has always been blue Jell-O.

The KGB has never officially existed.

Women have always outnumbered men in college.

There have always been flat screen televisions.

Nobody has ever responded to “Help, I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.”

Margaret Thatcher has always been a former prime minister.

Chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream has always been a flavor choice.


I'm very glad to teach in a Christian, liberal arts university where we strive to take our students from where they were when they came to us and to expose them to many cultural ideas with which they are not familiar, but should be. It's been gratifying to me already in this semester's Survey of French Literature class to have students tell me that they were surprised to learn they could enjoy literature from the Middle Ages! It's great fun also to point out various aspects of modern French culture whose roots are in some of the literature we are studying. Ah, the beauty of a liberal arts education!

Do you have a recent experience of finding out how "dated" some of your experiences are when you related them to people younger than you? Any thoughts on the value of a liberal arts education? By the way, please let me know if you did not understand the Venn diagram at the beginning of this post.


"God hasn't called us to be hermits or monks." - Drew Conley

=^..^= =^..^=

Young at heart. Slightly older in other places.

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24 Comments on “What They Don’t Know….”

  1. #1 Jenni
    on Sep 17th, 2009 at 9:32 pm

    Thanks for making me feel old! 🙂

  2. #2 Dave Stertzbach
    on Sep 17th, 2009 at 11:34 pm

    Love this blog! Don’t even get me started!

    OK, too late. I’m started.

    Just last night I had a conversation with my children about that time long ago in a land far away when there were no cell phones! They can’t imagine a world without microwaves and DVD’s any more than I could fathom my mother talking about her family getting their first TV, experiencing the previously unknown joys of “pizza pie”, and watching McDonald’s grow into a ubiquitous influence. Like The Force™, McDonald’s is always present, impossible to control, and might handy in a pinch.

    Every year at the beginning of the semester some web maven sends out the Beloit College list to ALL STAFF. And every year I get more and more curmudgeonly about it. It used to be surprising. Then it was unfathomable. Now it’s just irritating that my “one liners” take half the class period to set up.

    I’m 36 and a hopeless old goober to the kids I teach — most of whom were, in fact, born yesterday. My first cultural back-fire was a reference to bionics. I wasn’t yet 25. One helpful high school senior piped up from the back, “I think there are re-runs of the show he’s talking about on the Sci-Fi channel.” Thanks, Nathan.

    In my Biblical philosophy of music classes I have begun to teach Garlock the same way I teach Plato! The kids have no cultural context in which to place what he says. When I explain to them that “Dr. G.” is still very much alive, still reads widely, still ministers in churches, they look at me like I have two heads! It doesn’t surprise me anymore when after class someone blurts, “I did not know Plato was your in-laws’ music pastor. That is so, like.”

    Last semester I was on my phone before class when two girls walked up to me, “Wow. Pastor Stertzbach texts?”

    “And look at him,” said the other, as if I couldn’t hear them. “He’s using two thumbs!” I felt like a gereatric gerbal being gawked at behind plate glass. I half expected a reference to my chubby cheeks!

    I wish I could have come up with a snappy retort like, “Yes, I text. I’m probably faster than you and I can actually spell words.”

    Or “Yes, I text. It’s not that complicated compared with learning Bach fugues on the organ.”

    But, alas, my mind is not as quick as it once was….

  3. #3 Becky
    on Sep 18th, 2009 at 2:24 am

    I didn’t get the Venn Diagram. Sorry. I can always “make up” a solution to it, but nothing pops out at me.

    Some of the things that you are mentioning, however, are things that those of us who live overseas can’t relate to as much. IOW, MKs also won’t have that basic “core knowledge”. It is one thing that MKs spend their first few months just playing catch up to American culture. They spend a lot of time watching, listening and learning.

    We don’t have chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream as a flavor, salsa is hardly available here (and very expensive), jello isn’t sold here in blue, (jello, as a brand isn’t sold at all here–but we do have other brands and almost all other colors), they haven’t been to very much libraries (except on furlough and we’ve only had one long enough at actually use the library.)

    I know about the core knowledge though. Our kids have been exposed to things through videos and we actually do own a lot of books. Unfortunately, I’ve not actually read most of the books you listed in the original article either. 🙁 I missed most of the classics, I guess. Did read Charlotte’s Web, though. 🙂

  4. #4 Rob
    on Sep 18th, 2009 at 6:55 am

    @Jenni You’re welcome. It doesn’t take many years at all to do that to you, does it?

    @Dave So good to hear from you, Dave! I LOL’d several times in reading your comment. I have such vivid memories of you as my “with it” young student that it’s hard to think of you the way your students see you. I share your pain in navigating the mine field of comprehensible one-liners. 😀

    @Becky Don’t feel bad. We live here in the middle of American culture and don’t always know the things that others seem to. It’s impossible to remain on the cusp of all things current. I do what I can, that’s all. Whenever we’ve been in France or China for a month or two, we would come back feeling out of it with what had been going on in the USA, only to realize that it didn’t much matter. We caught up on the essentials and let the rest slide quickly away, just as we are doing right now. 🙂

  5. #5 Wendy
    on Sep 18th, 2009 at 8:26 am

    HA HA! This reminded me of a question my daughters asked me some time back about which was my favorite video when I was a kid. I had to laugh and they wanted to know what was so funny. 🙂 I know I am not TOO old yet but when I was in my early 20’s I used to rent a video disc machine and rent video discs to watch on it. Those hung around about as long as the eight-track tapes did, I believe. But, yes, computers?! My kids can’t imagine what life could be like without computers and cell phones. (I would have enjoyed having a computer and cell phone when I was a kid. WOW!) Thanks for the fun post, Rob!

  6. #6 Donna
    on Sep 18th, 2009 at 8:35 am

    I was reminiscing at the beginning of one of my classes on 9/11 about the class I was teaching on the day when a student came in to the computer lab and announced at the beginning of class that America was under attack. I figured out that it was true when I could not get online to any news website at all–we spent pretty much the rest of the hour trying to get news and sharing with the class when we found something. My husband called me when the first tower fell (they had a TV where he was.)

    Anyway, one of my students looked at me in kind of an awestruck way and said, “You were teaching back then? I was in the 6th grade!” I know in no time at all we will be getting students who don’t remember or were not even born on that day. That was the first time I had experienced that generational disconnect thing so vividly.


  7. #7 Michael
    on Sep 18th, 2009 at 9:06 am

    Just this week I made a reference to “Pinky and the Brain” which was a popular cartoon on TV several years ago. In the earlier part of this decade I could make a reference to that show and gets lots of laughs and responses from the kids. This week I had like two kids who even cracked a smile. Wow!

    Another example involves Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Whenever I get to the Renaissance I like to invoke the names of the turtles since they correspond to four of the great Renaissance masters: Leonardo, Michelangelo, Donatello, and Raphael. Again, earlier this decade that made a lot of sense to my students but now very few get what I am saying.

    As for the Wizard of Oz, I’d be afraid to bring up references to that movie because inevitably a student would bring up the controversy about how in the scene where Dorothy, the Scarecrow, and the Tin Man are setting out through the woods there appears to be the silhouette of one of the munchkins hanging himself in the background. Not an urban legend I want to deal with in the middle of history class.

  8. #8 Vikki
    on Sep 18th, 2009 at 9:26 am

    Love the venn diagram! It does put a great job of visually expressing the OH MY!

    Wow – I find it amazing how fast the years slip by and reading that list from Beloit College proves it. HOWEVER, what really drives home the point is realizing that my kids – three of which are now over 30 – can say the same!!

    I remember once, when our kids were teens, something happened and my response was, “Far out!”. It was followed by silence, then laughter, then the big question, “Did you really used to talk like that?!?”.

    Talking about age and passing time. When I was in high school in the late 60’s and early 70’s, I remember looking at my mother’s yearbook and being amazed at how ridiculous their styles were and how silly they looked and being happy that my kids will never look at MY yearbooks and say that because we look so normal. Sighhhhhhhh…… My kids have never seen my yearbooks . . .

  9. #9 Rob
    on Sep 18th, 2009 at 10:31 am

    @Wendy Yes, it’s amazing how much a part of our lives computers and cell phones have become and how unthinkable life without them is to young people especially. Thanks for the reminder of 8-track tapes. Had one in my Gremlin and in my house stereo. 😀

    @Donna I remember when you were in high school! Yikes! Now who’s getting old? It’s a shocker for our family to think that our daughter Megan’s first class of 1st graders are now in 10th grade! Tempus fugit, as I always say….

    @Michael It’s fun to hear a younger teacher like you share your experiences in having your pop culture not be part of your students’ set of experiences. This will continue, just so you know up front. 🙂 I’ve heard the Munchkin story and don’t let things even begin to drift in that direction. That’s one reason I prefer Tim Horton’s “timbits” to Dunkin Donuts’ Munchkins … just too morbid to eat Munchkins.

    @Vikki That is so groovy! 😀 I had a student tell me one time that the only reason we have yearbooks is to give our children something to laugh at.

  10. #10 Angela
    on Sep 18th, 2009 at 11:53 am

    It is heartening to know that your students are still being educated in the lore of the Sesame Street Bus! 😀

  11. #11 Rob
    on Sep 18th, 2009 at 2:00 pm

    @Angela I’m sure it’s reassuring to know that “ça continue.” I haven’t been able to use it yet … I does actually have to fit in with the lesson, you know. 😉

  12. #12 Janet
    on Sep 18th, 2009 at 2:13 pm

    When I first taught high school back in the early 80’s, I could explain to the students, that in the time line of TV shows, I was the same age as Cindy and Bobby Brady. That gave them reference to what our styles were (with longer hem lines), and the “groovy” way we talked, etc. Now, unless a student happened to have caught the show on Nick at Night, I get a blank stare and “Did he run for President?” or some such semi-polite response.

    When I was a student at BJU, “Prep” was all the rage in fashion. Izod was king of polo shirts and Members Only jackets topped off the outfit of any guy who was anybody. Now,”prep” refers to someone on the level of what we would have called a “nerd,” and being nerdy is akin to being smart and technologically savvy and cool!

    I am like, so old . . . bummer, man.

  13. #13 Rob
    on Sep 18th, 2009 at 4:00 pm

    @Janet I have several oldies, but goodies that I just cannot let go of. I simply explain why they are funny, and continue to use them. My students laugh, but I’m not sure it’s because I’ve explained things or because they’re amused at their anachronistic teacher. BTW, you are way not so old! Or however they would say it this week.

  14. #14 Laura
    on Sep 18th, 2009 at 9:52 pm

    I had a realization similar to Donna’s when Dr. Lawson mentioned 9/11 in chapel. I was a sophomore in high school back then, and I remember vividly watching the news all day and being concerned about my dad until he got home that afternoon (he works at a big Navy base on the east coast). Then I realized that this year’s college freshmen were in 5th grade when that happened… what a different perspective!

    Or how about this twist to feeling old? A while back, a good friend of mine and I were perusing the toy aisle at Wal-Mart just for the fun of it. After a few minutes, we suddenly realized that the shelves were full of things we hadn’t seen since we were about 5 or 6! Anyone remember Polly Pocket? 🙂

  15. #15 Sharon
    on Sep 18th, 2009 at 10:17 pm

    I homeschool my children (age 14 and 11), and my husband and I are always laughing about stuff we discover that they don’t know. Recently, we realized that they had never seen The Wizard of Oz. We checked it out of the library, and they actually protested having to watch it. However, the Cowardly Lion won them over, and they watched the movie several times over the next couple of days. There are just some things that EVERYONE has to know…… 🙂

  16. #16 Rob
    on Sep 19th, 2009 at 9:28 am

    @Laura Yes, 9/11 was eight years ago — almost half-a-lifetime away for this year’s freshman. I was two years older than they are now when JFK was assassinated, but I remember exactly where I was when I heard the news. The mental image of a bunch of 7th grade boys crying in the locker room after gym class is not pretty.

    Sorry, I have no recollection of Polly Pocket. 🙂

    @Sharon I’m glad your kids enjoyed the Wizard of Oz. I’ve heard from several people who found parts of it scary and unsettling when they were children, and to this day they don’t really like the movie. You’re right, though, that there are just somethings kids need to know.

    Yesterday I had the Venn diagram on the desktop of my computer I use in my classroom, and hence it was visible on the screen at the front of the room. All day long, the only kids who didn’t chuckle over it were those from foreign countries. I guess that verifies some what Professor X’s findings.

    @all readers – In the original post, I had put a picture of a t-shirt, but I felt it was distracting from what it was beside. So I’ll post it below. It might explain why young people know what they do.

    picture of t-shirt

  17. #17 Carrie
    on Sep 21st, 2009 at 2:57 am

    Oh man! I laughed so many times at the comments–well worth the read! One year when I was teaching 4th grade, I referred to the fall of the Berlin Wall, recalling that I had done a current events notebook on it as a senior in high school. I mentioned that it was 1990. Stunned silence. One of the students raised his hand and said, “Miss H, I was one.” I know, I’m old.

    Oh, and when I returned to grad school after teaching for 5 years I audited your French class–with a bunch of freshmen. I was saying to my brother how young they were. He thought a minute and reminded me that when I had come as a freshman those kids were in 2nd grade! Yikes! I guess that didn’t have anything to do with pop culture, it just made me feel old. . . 😮

    .-= Carrie’s most recent blog post … Day Three of Four: Soldotna to Anchorage =-.

  18. #18 Rob
    on Sep 21st, 2009 at 5:51 am

    @Carrie When you came back and audited that class with the freshman, that made me feel old too, to think that you had been a freshman almost 10 years earlier! And now that is probably at least 10 years ago! I was shocked to see something on Facebook — one of my former high school students, from my earlier years of teaching, had put up pictures of his grandchildren on FB. And they weren’t babies!!! Now that’s scary! I’m sure many of my students from my first years of teaching have grandkids, but I just hadn’t thought about their being that old.

  19. #19 Tawnja Schaffner
    on Sep 21st, 2009 at 9:33 am

    What made me feel old is when a current BJU staff member commented on the course registration being completely online – no more archaic bubble sheets to fill out. I thought back to my Freshman year when we had to run around to different tables in the SAS building to gather computer punch cards for each of our classes! Bet current students have never seen a punch card, although they might have heard about hanging chads. =)

  20. #20 Vikki
    on Sep 21st, 2009 at 9:39 am

    I think my sister had a Polly Pocket. Was that the little doll that came in a huge locket?

  21. #21 b.j.
    on Sep 21st, 2009 at 10:07 am

    I’m only in my early thirties, and I can understand what all of you are talking about! It is strange to see a lot of the toys, such as care bears, polly pockets, little ponies, cabbage patch, and so on coming back on the shelves, but they are a little different. A little more daring, a little worse.

    And about the 9/11 comments, a co-worker of mine (a senior in high school this year) told me, in regards to all the discussions and classwork given to her on that day, “I understand a lot of people died, and I feel bad for their families and all, but it happened so long ago! Why do they have to keep shoving it down our throats every year?” Sad.

  22. #22 Laura
    on Sep 21st, 2009 at 7:15 pm

    @ Vikki– yes, those were Polly Pockets. I had a couple of them as a kid, but my mom wasn’t very fond of them…. she usually called them “vacuum food!”

  23. #23 Carrie
    on Sep 22nd, 2009 at 2:32 am

    My daughter has Polly Pockets — their shoes are barely big enough to make a noise going into the vacuum! Mr. Loach, this is one of my very favorite posts! I think I’ll check the comments every few days. . .

  24. #24 Rob
    on Sep 22nd, 2009 at 9:48 am

    @Tawnja Wow! You don’t mean that they were still using IBM punch cards when you first came to college! That was the standard for at least 20 years until we went mod with the bubble sheets. One remembrance of the bubble sheets…. When I was working in registration one year at the window where the students picked up their printed schedules, there was a freshman who kept waiting and waiting, and his schedule didn’t come out of the printer. As he was looking at the schedules on the counter, he said, “Here’s one for my roommate. He registered several days ago and already has his schedule.” Upon further investigation, we learned that his senior roommate had helped him fill out his bubble sheet and accidentally put his own student number in the spaces. What happened was his original schedule was overwritten because of the second bubble sheet “from him” and his new schedule was that of his freshman roommate, who had a different major! The senior roommate learned that some of the classes he had originally been in were now closed. The registrar had to do some magic of sorts so that this kindly roommate was not messed up for having helped his freshman roomie.

    @Vikki, Laura, and Carrie Glad you ladies hashed out the Polly Pockets thing … never heard of it myself. 😀

    @b.j. The toys you mentioned do speak to me … my kids must be from about the same era that you are. And that is indeed sad about the student’s comment about the 9/11 history being “shoved down our throats every year.” I hope this kid wasn’t echoing the elements of our society that would love us to forget that atrocity and was just being ignorant instead.